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What is an untouchable prospect?

What is the threshold for a team to hold onto a prospect at all costs?

Syndication: Poughkeepsie Journal Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Josh and I have a running dialogue about the Yankees’ top prospects. We frequently exchange thoughts regarding their projections, performance, and our ever-changing expectations for them. Every once in a while, we ponder hypothetical trade scenarios, testing each other’s belief in the latest crop of potentially homegrown superstar talent versus the players on other teams we most covet.

One such proposal a few months back revolved around Corbin Burnes and the Yankees’ consensus number one prospect. The question: would you trade Anthony Volpe in a one-for-one swap for Burnes? I say yes, Josh says no. He firmly believes (and has fully convinced me) that Volpe will end next season as the number one prospect in baseball, and you don’t trade someone like that for anyone not named Juan Soto. To the contrary, I’d argue that if offered a 27-year-old, 7.5-win starting pitcher under team control for the next three seasons in exchange for someone who has yet to reach Double-A ... that, in the words of Marlon Brando, is an offer you can’t refuse.

Then earlier this week, Jesse penned a thoughtful piece calling for a reality check on the way we talk about prospects. He urged for perspective in the expectations we level upon these young men, some of whom only just reached voting age. It’s unrealistic to compare Jasson Domínguez to Mickey Mantle or Henry Lalane to Randy Johnson, and doing so only sets them up for failure when they inevitably don’t hit the heights of literal “top 10 player in baseball history.”

The thought experiment with Josh and this latest piece by Jesse opened the Pandora’s box of prospect evaluation for me, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. What does it mean for a prospect to be untouchable?

As the name suggests, an untouchable prospect is one you wouldn’t trade for any return, one for whom you wouldn’t even field any offers and might hang up the phone at the mention of their name. They might be a consensus top prospect as ranked by the bloc of outside evaluators, from MLB Pipeline to Baseball America and beyond. Teams also have internal projection systems that might indicate so-and-so’s trajectory puts them on the same path as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Vlad Guerrero Jr., or Wander Franco.

That’s the caliber of player we have to talk about when labeling a prospect “untouchable.” Untouchable means you may even hesitate to swap said player for someone of the aforementioned group. And the only way to justify that level of all-in belief in a prospect is there’s a reasonable expectation he could ascend to the tier of those stars.

You might argue it’s unfair or unrealistic to hold a prospect to those sky-high standards. This is where I’d point out the slight distinction between having that expectation and applying those constraints when placing a player into the untouchable bucket. Plus, I’d add that becoming too preoccupied with being “realistic” or “fair” can put you at a competitive disadvantage. In an ideal world, players would be treated as the humans they are, not as commodities, and allowed to develop at their own pace. Until we get to that point, though, refusing to “do the dance” will leave you behind teams that have no such moral qualms.

Having arrived at this conclusion, my thoughts turned to the Yankees. You’ll remember how Andy Martino of SNY speculated that the Yankees would be unwilling to include Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza in a trade for Matt Olson, in a sense labeling each as untouchable to a degree. That made me wonder if the Yankees indeed have any prospect who should rightfully be labeled as untouchable. The only three who should come under consideration in this question are Volpe, Domínguez, and Peraza.

Volpe rocketed up prospect lists after massive 2021 campaign where he won MLB Pipeline Hitting Prospect of the Year honors, causing many to reevaluate their projected ceilings for the Yankees starlet. As I mentioned earlier, some rumblings suggest he could eventually vault to become the number one prospect in baseball, and that’s precisely the way to ensure that the Yankees will hold onto him for the duration of his development.

Domínguez had the opposite experience in 2021. In his first taste of pro ball, the 18-year-old carried a 105 wRC+ with a 31.3 percent strikeout rate and 50.4 percent groundball rate. That’s an incredibly concerning development in, as Josh put it, the foundational ability to hit the ball. It’s certainly lightyears away from what guys like Trout, Harper, Soto, Acuña Jr., Tatis, Guerrero, or Franco produced in their introductions to pro ball. Remember, this was only Low-A, pitchers only get better from here, with the biggest jump arguably from A to Double-A. Throw on top the questions already arising about his contact rate in the zone and ability to play centerfield and maybe we should readjust our sights.

This isn’t to say that Domínguez’s 2021 was disappointing by any means. As Jesse rightfully pointed out, it was unfair that Domínguez was drawing comparisons to Mantle and Trout before even stepping foot on American soil, but again, this is where I’d like to draw the distinction between placing those expectation on Domínguez and requiring those expectations of an untouchable prospect. Who knows, maybe he has a monster 2022 and the growing pains of 2021 are long forgotten. As for now, I hesitate to place him into the untouchable category.

Peraza has batted well in the lower levels of the minors, but it’s his glove that has always won the plaudits. Given the fact that he’s only played eight games above Double-A — and was below-average offensively at that — I find it frankly outlandish that the Yankees would balk at including him in a deal for an All-Star slugger.

The more I think about it, the more I find myself agreeing with Josh. Volpe is the only Yankees prospect who should be considered untouchable, and even then not in an absolute sense.

On a final note, I’ll leave you with this. Yankees fans by now are quite familiar with the way the team tends to cling to their young players. The Bombers missed out on impact trades because of their attachment to guys like Miguel Andújar, Clint Frazier, and Gleyber Torres. Andújar hasn’t been a viable major leaguer for the last three seasons, Frazier was let go for nothing, and Torres has to prove himself all over again. And these were guys with demonstrated big league success being treated as untouchable, not players entering their second or third seasons of minor league ball. I just ask you keep this in mind before determining a prospect is untouchable.